The most fertile opening-book-in-a-series is not necessarily the most tight, coherent book, writing-wise. Doing any one thing well is difficult, and takes up tons of narrative energy – a series needs interesting places to go next, and some loose ends to follow later. Primary Inversion, Catherine Asaro’s first Skolian book (of many), is a good example of how to do this in a fun way.
Soz is one the highest-rated empaths in the galaxy, possibly next in line to rule the Skolian Imperialate; she’s also a starship pilot known as a Jagernaut, and really good at her job because of her mental abilities (we follow her and her squad in an amazing space battle early on in the book). Her family rules Skolia, again because of their mighty minds, and their area of the galaxy is locked in mortal war against the evil Traders. But what happens to Soz when she meets the Trader heir and he is not as evil as the rest of his family?
That’s a really brief summary of the book. Broadly speaking, Primary Inversionhas:
- galactic empires in titanic, deathly struggles
- a family saga filled with pain, loneliness and the occasional triumph
- telepaths making sweet, sweet love to each other
- really hardcore space combat (see Asaro’s scientific works on physics and propulsion) at faster than light speeds
- futuristic computer networks and various capers related to them
- a convincing depiction of post-traumatic stress disorder
In other words, it’s a book that’s fun to read on its own, if a bit messy, and it’s a great book to launch a series with. While I was reading it this time around, I couldn’t help thinking of Anne McCaffrey – I wrote about Dragonflight here on the Gutter a while ago, and the parallels jumped out at me. McCaffrey wrote a book jammed with a ton of wacky material, and it gave her lots of room for sequels; likewise Asaro. As an example of the opposite case, I immediately thought of the Ender books (my reaction to the first set and the second set), where the sequels built from a book that was a perfect gem on its own. Ender’s Game proved to be too tidy and too closed-off/complete to generate interesting sequels.
I guess the main difference between McCaffrey and Asaro would be that McCaffrey stuck relatively closely to the template of Dragonflight – the Pern books all resemble one another to a certain degree. The Skolian books drift away from the SF side of things, especially the space combat, and get sucked into the family saga side. Yes, these elements are already present in Primary Inversion, but the mix definitely changes in proportion. Maybe it’s “The Thorn Birds in space!” all the way along, with greater emphasis on family turmoil as the story goes along.
And Asaro loves the romance! I like that about the series actually (see the cover to the right – it’s for one of the later books, Ascendant Sun – for some prime beefcake), since it messes with some of the weird gender things that happen in the genre. It’s true that stale old ideas of cheesecake (hot alien ladies are hot for maybe-not-as-hot earth men!) are left somewhat uncorrected by way of beefcake for the ladies. I guess what I’m trying to say is that an exact role reversal only gets us so much further than we were before.
That said, Asaro smushes the romance elements rather definitively into the futuristic saga, and she has convincing explanations for two of the key things that make for a good romance: what’s keeping our protagonists apart, and what’s driving them into each other’s arms. In the case of Primary Inversion, Soz is the heir to the Skolian empire, and she falls in love with the heir of her bitter enemies. The obstacles to their love are obvious: they’ve each been deeply conditioned by their own society to hate the other. The likelihood of family approval or support are pretty low on both sides.
Yet still their love is destined to be! You see, their empathic abilities are so great that their intimate encounters are (almost literally) mind-blowing. So there’s that. And also, in a strain of genetic determinism that struck me as a little bit odd this time around, their genes call out to each other in a deep way. They are such powerful telepaths that their very bodies are programmed to fight against the society that keeps them apart. Yes, odd, but in terms of the construction or mechanics of a romance plot, pretty clever stuff.
This mix of fun SF speculation and an intense romantic plot engine served the first book very well. It’s not entirely the same template in the books that followed, since as I’ve mentioned, the science-fictional stuff tails off a bit. If that’s what you’re looking for though – a far-future saga with tons of intricate family turmoil, and a dash of space combat and telepathy – then the galactic forecast is looking good!
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